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Friday, February 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Old School' goes for laughs, even if it is the butt of jokes

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review


**
"Old School," with Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Ellen Pompeo, Leah Remini, Jeremy Piven. Directed by Todd Phillips, from a screenplay by Phillips and Scot Armstrong. 91 minutes. Rated R for some strong sexual content, nudity and language. Several theaters.

Let us ponder the vision of a naked Will Ferrell, jogging purposefully through the night streets of a quiet college town, his rear end glowing white like a jiggly beacon. Or, if you'd rather not ponder it, don't go see "Old School," in which the nude Ferrell — who could well be the man for whom the phrase "sorry ass" was invented — is used as a visual punch line. Once seen, it's an image difficult to erase from memory — and believe me, I'm trying.

Naked former "Saturday Night Live" cast members aside, "Old School" delivers on what its ubiquitous commercials promise: a predictable for-the-boys comedy that does contain a few genuine laughs (not to mention a very funny reference to "The Graduate"). Not quite enough to justify giving this movie 91 minutes of your life, but as stupid gross-out comedies go, you could do worse.

The story's a sort of older version of "Revenge of the Nerds" meets "Animal House," with a slight twist: Three 30-ish buddies, frustrated by their nowhere lives and the women who seemingly control them, form a fraternity on their old college campus. Others join them, including a handful of college-age kids (brought in, presumably, to attract a younger movie audience), and the parties, hazing and wrestling topless females in KY Jelly begin. When a college administrator (Jeremy Piven) tries to put a stop to the fraternity, the guys must prove their mettle in a series of intellectual and physical challenges, which is a polite way of saying that Ferrell does some really dopey rhythmic gymnastics and that Piven looks annoyed a lot.

Luke Wilson, Owen's cute but less-funny brother, stars as the cheerfully bland Mitch, a regular guy blindsided by the infidelity of his adventurous girlfriend (Juliette Lewis, sucking on cigarettes as if they're popsicles). He's given a less-dangerous-looking love interest: Ellen Pompeo ("Moonlight Mile"), she of the curly smile and Renée Zellweger-like crinkly voice, who wanders aimlessly but pleasantly through the movie. The screenwriters could have saved time by putting her in a T-shirt that read "Nice Unthreatening Woman: Don't Be Afraid."

Really, the unspoken subtext of "Old School" is anxiety — about women, about commitment, about settling for a mundane life, about becoming dismembered (and I use the term quite precisely) when a fraternity prank involving rope and concrete blocks goes horribly wrong. But it's not meant to be examined seriously; this throwaway movie, with its oddball cameos (among them Snoop Dogg, Andy Dick and Democrat pundit James Carville, who must be hard up for a gig these days) and fat-kid sight gags, is only after a laugh. And if that comes in the guise of Ferrell's pasty posterior — well, in these dark days, a laugh is still a laugh.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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